Magazine article Sunset

Rock 'N' Roll Canyon

Magazine article Sunset

Rock 'N' Roll Canyon

Article excerpt

Escape to Southern California's Topanga for close encounters of the wild kind

THE ENDLESSLY QUIXOTIC SOUND of Devendra Banhart's Smokey Rolls Down Thunder Canyon dances inside the truck as I roll on down Topanga Canyon. Banhart recorded Smokey during ragtag sessions at his Topanga house, and the album has inspired me to head here for a day of exploring. Distance-wise, it's not much of a journey: I live just over the ridge.

But things change quickly from one hollow to another in the Santa Monica Mountains. Topanga is not only in a separate watershed from me, it also offers an escape into a separate world where counterculture traditions survive, and it provides a gateway into some of the Los Angeles area's most unspoiled country.

The road shimmies through the hills, running along slopes spiced with purple sage. It climbs and dives in and out of wooded swales, passing modern designer homes conspicuously placed along ridgelines, before dropping toward the canyon bottom. A kinescope of landmarks flickers through the windshield: the former site of the music mecca the Topanga Corral, where Neil Young, among other canyon notables, once played; a flying pink pig high up on a post; and an old Santa Fe boxcar used as a creek crossing.

Then on into downtown Topanga-such as it is. The heart of town sits at a confluence of creeks. It's all rather random and weathered, uncutesified with a bistro, a vintage clothing store, and an ironworks shop housed in roadside cottages. There are no chains and brands, just locally owned boutiques and galleries tucked away in small retail centers, where I wander past a few bearded Banhart-esque characters sipping their espressos, and bulletin boards touting karmic astrologers and healers.

I had spotted a sign heralding a store called ZenBunni, and that cryptic name proves too compelling to ignore. Far back in one of the centers, I find a couple working across from each other at a table in the front of the tiny shop. A stained-glass skylight incorporating a peace sign brightens the space, whose walls are covered with rustic frames and altars as well as a large photograph of a fog-shrouded lotus pond, which for some reason I can't stop looking at, wondering just where and what it is.

I discover that it's the site of Buddha's birthplace, and the mystery of the store's name is solved too after the couple introduce themselves. They are Zen Nishimura and Bunni Lezak: He is a clothing designer, she a photographer, and this shop, with its pressed-tin ceiling and so-year-old plank floor, is their collaboration. We exchange stories of travel and of pets, and I sample their homemade raw chocolate. …

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